The ancient Taoist sages loved to be out in nature, contemplating the ways of the natural world. As a result, they came to see that there is a “given balance” in nature.
Over time, they elaborated this sense of balance into a deep philosophical principle.
Most of us now are familiar, at least superficially, with their symbol for balance, the Yin and Yang:
This ancient Chinese symbol is even older than Taoism. This symbol shows that in all reality, there is always balance, based on a never-ending ebb and flow between seeming opposites, opposites that are, in fact, complements.
These opposites, or complements, are like two sides to a coin; though they are different, they are one; they can’t be separated, as the two sides of a coin can’t be.
This indivisability is indicated by the outer circle of the symbol, the container that holds the two sides together, the dark and the light. The circle indicates the oneness that is reality itself, called by Taoists the great Tao.
Then, within this circle of wholeness in the symbol, we find a dividing line, signifying the ancient wisdom that within original wholeness, within the one, the two emerges; unity multiplies within itself. Every creation myth in every spiritual tradition has some reference to this occurrence; Taoism indicates it in this symbol.
The Chinese symbol goes even further. It is the character of the dividing line in this symbol, the character of the transition of the whole into its constituent parts, that is remarkably revealing. It is not a straight rigid line; it is rather curved, in a particular way.
This curved line shows that there is a dynamic, inevitably-changing nature of reality, and the symbol indicates that, though change naturally occurs, change occurs in rhythmic, cyclic fashion.
And so, in the symbol, we can see that the design is such that, as one modern physicist puts it, when one aspect of nature (the light side, for instance) becomes excessive, when it swells out so far, takes up so much space, then “the seed of the opposite” (the dark) is already there, and that seed swells out in turn to recreate balance.
When you go too far one way, the Taoist says, the opposite will inevitably emerge.
This is the profound teaching of the Taoist and of the Yin–Yang symbol.
Again, seen rightly, the Yin and the Yang are not opposites, but complementary dynamic forces.
As R.G.H. Siu says:
“The opposition, alternation, and interaction of these two forces give rise to all phenomena in the universe, in a continuous advance and regression of the vital forces in nature. Nothing remains static…It is said that ‘When the sun reaches the meridian, it declines, and when the moon becomes full, it wanes.’ As Lao Tzu sums it up, ‘Reversal is the nature of the Tao.”
Taoism emphasizes this natural balancing of forces in every part of its teaching.
Here is a quote by John Blofield:
“Whereas fallen autumn leaves never produce identical patterns on the earth, the comings and goings of autumn itself vary only within narrow limits. Such cycles are foreseeable, as for example, the alternation of day and night and of the four seasons. Taoist adepts learn both to contemplate and investigate the various sequences of change; contemplation engenders the tranquility that arises when loss, decay and death are recognized as being no less essential to the whole than gain, growth, life; investigation permits one to foresee, within certain limits, what will inevitably occur.”
The cultivation of this kind of awareness, based on observation and contemplation, is part of the great open secret of the Taoist “way.”
We have said that opposites are like two sides to a coin; though they are different, they are one. As the circle in the Yin–Yang symbol indicates, opposites can’t be separated because they are complements. All diversity is contained within wholeness.
They are, as the Taoist say, mutually arising, and our balance and peace of mind lie in recognizing this.
“Is and is not arise together;
Difficult and easy are complementary;
Long and short arise from comparison;
Higher and lower are interdependent;
Vocalization and verbalization harmonize with each other;
Before and after accompany each other.”
Lao Tsu, From Chapter Two, Tao Te Ching, Translation by Man-jan Ching
I spend a great deal of time meditating on this phrase mutually arising. “Back” and “front,” for example. There is no front without a back. These attributes or perceptions or definitions necessarily arise together.
Does that mean that there is no “good” without “bad?” Is every gift a curse and every curse a gift?
Here is a familiar story, one of my favorites, attributed to Huainantse Liu An, c. 178-122 BC, retold in my own words:
A farmer had a fine horse, a mare. One day the horse broke free and ran away into the plains. Neighbors gathered to console the farmer, saying, “Isn’t it terrible that the horse ran way!”
“May be,” said the farmer.
The next day the mare returned, bringing with her a magnificent wild stallion. “Oh,” said the neighbors, “how fortunate!”
“May be,” said the farmer.
One day, though, the farmer’s son, while out riding the stallion, broke his leg and was no longer able to help his father with work in the field. Neighbors came to console the farmer, saying, in effect, “Isn’t this awful?”
The farmer replied, “May be.”
The next day, messengers from the Emperor arrived at the farmer’s home, demanding that the son go with them to join the army to fight the enemy, but the farmer informed them that his son’s leg was broken, and so he could not go. Again, neighbors came to congratulate the farmer at the good fortune that his son did not have to go to war, saying in effect, “Isn’t that wonderful?”
The farmer, a good Taoist, again said, “May be.”
There is a very modern sort of “uncertainty principle” feeling to this ancient “may be” story. One thing leads to another, certainly, but one can’t over-simplify the happenings with a “cause and effect” explanation. Seemingly random, chance things fall into meaningful patterns. Why? How?
The Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung associated Taoist teaching in this regard with his idea of synchronicity, things that occur meaningfully and simultaneously without “logical, rational” connection. But there is a meaningful connection, however non-rational we may think it is with our limited frame of reference.
I personally think that, at any one moment, the very complexity of the uncountable interactions and interconnections within the whole make it extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to have a complete overview or inclusive awareness, given our normal limited state of consciousness.
The ancient Chinese philosopher, remember, said that everything is connected in the circle of wholeness, inseparably connected, at every moment, in the Great Tao of reality. A modern physicist has said that whenever someone sneezes it is felt on the furthest planet.
This may seem unimaginable to our ordinary awareness. But, as Michael Adams has written in his book Wandering in Eden, the Way of the East Within Us: “Science itself now takes the ground from under our feet.” We are told that:
’All galaxies, stars, planets, and human beings are manifestations of disturbances in a tenuous sea. They are waves, streams, ripples, flurries in a ceaseless change.’ (Pfeiffer)”
And we are told ‘that which is is a shell floating in the infinitude of that which is not.’ (Eddington)
‘The Universe is as the surface of a soap bubble, and the substance out of which this bubble is blown, the soap film, is empty space welded onto empty time.’ (Jeans)
‘In space there are no directions and no boundaries; without things occupying it, it is nothing.’ (Barnett)
‘Matter is a convenient formula for describing what happens where it isn’t.’ (Russell)”
These words about modern science sound so very Taoist! Ancient wisdom mirrored by modern science. And how mysterious it all is!
All this boggles the brains of most of us; Jung, who read and studied and used the Taoist Book of Changes, the I Ching, for more than forty years, said, “The less one thinks about the theory of the I Ching, the more soundly one sleeps.”
That reminds us of Lao Tzu’s saying that one who knows the Tao can’t adequately speak of the Tao.
Absolute statements of any kind terrify me, for I sense the over-simplification; I know that something must be left out in any absolutism, some opposite statement must already by emerging to stand for balance.
Are we therefore helplessly caught in the mystery and in the endless cycle of change, of the cosmic flow? On the contrary, says the Taoist.
The ancient wisdom teachings, even older than that of Lao Tzu or Chuang Tzu and the source for many of their ideas, appear in that text referred to by Jung, the I Ching, or Book of Changes.
This compilation work details the concept that by observing from a point of meditative stillness (as described in a previous lesson), one is able to discern the flow of change before it reaches the point where we are “caught,” and so we can modify our behavior creatively to participate in the flow itself, thus changing the outcome or at least changing ourselves to deal with it.
This 3000-year-old classic has, in the words of one of its translators, R. G. H. Siu, “served as a principle guide in China on how to govern a country, organize an enterprise, deal with people, conduct oneself under difficult conditions, and contemplate the future.”
Over the centuries, of course, this ancient teaching has seen the accretion of many interpretations and uses; modern translations and commentaries on these ancient teachings exist in numerous versions of the I Ching. Some interpretations and additions are less philosophical and more superstitious than others. For example, the book is sometimes used for divination purposes as though it is by magic or by the given fiat of the “gods” that things occur. Or it is sometimes used to try to control rather than participate in change.
But the deeper, more profound, core value of the text of the I Ching lies in advancing self-understanding and helping anyone to prepare for, and adjust to, and even, occasionally, to influence the flow of change. The value of this use cannot be underestimated.
In a written introduction to one of the translations of the I Ching by Richard Wilhelm, Carl Jung wrote:
“I, of course, am thoroughly convinced of the value of self-knowledge…Even to the most biased eye it is obvious that this book (the I Ching) represents one long admonition to careful scrutiny of one’s own character, attitude and motives.“
The I Ching takes the philosophy of the Yin–Yang symbol beyond its simple symbolic division into “two” and further organized a view of reality into sixty-four basic “situations,” into and through which reality flows in its onward orderly course.
By discerning which of the sixty-four is activated at any given moment, one can, by use of the 64 chapters of the book, the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching, respond most appropriately in that situation.
John Blofeld writes:
“They (the Taoists) understood that nature’s workings depend upon a system of fine balances among processes that may assist, hinder or block out one another according to the relative strength of each in a given situation. (italics mine. GT) Having devoted much of their time in tranquil contemplation of nature, they had watched these sometimes conflicting forces at work and learnt to predict the outcome of such conflicts, or even to manipulate that outcome within certain narrow limits, as when one drives a serpent from a frog or diverts the water in a stream.
“However, content to contemplate in silence the majestic progress of the seasons and the planets, they were serenely averse to interference whether with nature or the activities of man. Seeing everything in true perspective, they found that all of it is ‘good’ —for ‘ups’ there must be ‘downs’, for ‘light’ there must be ‘dark’, for ‘in’ there must be ‘out,’ and for ‘life’ there must be ‘death.’ Why, then, interfere?”
Interfere we must, of course, because we ourselves are part of the ongoing process of change; by our actions or non-actions, we interfere, and so, the Taoist tells us, “Interfere as little as possible, or interfere in appropriate ways to return things to their natural state, to a balanced state of health and wholeness.” The I Ching instructs us on how to do this.
It is significant that, while Taoism is a philosophical, spiritual, and even mystical tradition, it is also very practical. As Asian scholar Judith Berling has said:
“Taoists were interested in health and vitality; they experimented with herbal medicine and pharmacology, greatly advancing these arts; they developed principles of macrobiotic cooking and other healthy diets; they developed systems of gymnastics and massage to keep the body strong and youthful. Taoists were supporters both of magic and of proto-science; they were the element of Chinese culture most interested in the study of and experiments with nature.”
Of course, what is “nature,” and “what is natural” can be up for debate between the realist, the traditionalists, the literalist, etc. And when the intellectual fog gets thick enough, a good Taoist cuts through the uproar with humor that clears our minds. Here is a humorous story told by Schiang Chinchih c 1600, retold in my words:
There was once a quack doctor who said he could cure a camel of his hump. Someone decided to test this and brought his camel to the doctor. The doctor made the camel lie down in such a way that he could put a heavy board across the camel’s back. Then he had people jump up and down on the board. The camel’s hump was modified. The camel died of the abuse. The camel owner was outraged and took the doctor to court. But the doctor defended himself by saying that he had advertised to straighten the hump but had said nothing about whether or not the camel lived!
This highly “unnatural” activity of trying to straighten a camel’s hump, the Taoist saw, was the way of many people who try to improve on nature and who thus get off balance.
All of us, I think, go off balance from time to time, get carried away, and that is natural too, the Taoist says, but we must have this inner observer who quietly watches, and, like a skillful trapeze artist, sets about, in good time, to establishing some weight on the opposite side of our behavior or mood, so that we get over our disequilibrium, return to balance without getting hurt. For balance will come, sooner or later, and we best attend to it sooner rather than later.
My Taoist teacher insisted that I must be careful not to go too far in any one direction or I would, in his words, “conjure the opposite.”
This can feel scary, and it would be, if we were not at the time centered, practiced in being aware of all directions, honoring all sides, balancing dynamically all aspects of the situation.
We can welcome any side because we also welcome the other side, in some manner, and all sides balance each other out successfully.
When we follow the Tao, nothing is accidental or even wrong. It is all part of a sublime balancing of the cycles of change. Whatever comes to us is to be greeted calmly and dealt with honorably, even things we don’t like. For if it comes to us, somehow it is ours.
So, we are adminished to cultivate a still point, while remaining calm about the fact that everything curves, nothing stays only in a straight line, and everything changes. Often enough, it changes back into its opposite. A powerful way of life indeed.
Chuang Tse said it best, some 2500 years ago, when he was already speaking of the old ones, the Lao Tse,or wise ones, who had come before him:
The true men of old did not know what it was to love life or to hate death. They did not rejoice in birth, nor strive to put off dissolution. Unconcerned they came and unconcerned they went. That was all. They did not forget when it was they had sprung therefrom neither did they seek to inquire their return thither. Cheerfully they accepted life, waiting patiently for their restoration. Such a one may be called a true human.
Such are free in mind and calm in demeanor…Sometimes disconsolate like autumn and sometimes warm like spring, their joys and sorrows are in direct touch with the four seasons, in harmony with all creation, and none know the limit thereof.
For what they cared for was One, and what they did not care for was One also. That which they regarded as One was One, and that which they did not regard as One was One likewise. In that which as One, they were of God; in that which was not One, they were of man. And so between the human and the divine no conflict ensued. This was to be a true man…
To have been cast in this form is to us already a source of joy. How much greater joy beyond our conception to know that that which is now in human form may undergo countless transitions, with only the infinite to look forward to? Therefore it is that the sage rejoices in that which can never be lost, but endures always. For if we emulate those who can accept graciously long age or short life and the vicissitudes of events, how much more should we emulate that which informs all creation on which all changing phenomena depend…”
That is the practice of the Taoist. Consciousness rushing to expand to the immensity of the universe.
“Great effort is required to arrest decay and restore vigor. One must exercise proper deliberation, plan carefully before making a move, and be alert in guarding against relapse following a renaissance.”
Hexagram 18 Ku, ‘Arresting of Decay,’ The Over-all Judgment, from the I Ching.
Suggested Activities and Questions for Contemplation:
Do you believe that there is built into reality a balancing and counter-balancing force? What does this mean for “linear” thinking?
Do you think you can trust your own nature, if left to its own devices?
Do you trust yourself? If not, why not?
How can something be “not opposites but rather complements?” What does that mean to you?
The Taoists speak of trusting our “authentic” core self. What does that mean to you, especially in terms of your own authentic self?
Think about history as you know it to see whether you think the Taoists are right about the cyclical or automatically balancing way of reality.
Think of some situation in your life today about which things seem conflicted; see if you can find a “complementary” rather than “oppositional ” approach to the situation.
What exactly is meant by the term “Te”?
Tao: Way, Path
Lao: Old, ancient, revered
Sifu: Wise or Skilled One
Tzu-Jan: Self-so, spontaneous, natural
Wu-Wei: Moving stillness, or effortless movement
Ti or Chi: Innate powerful life force that can be cultivated
The I Ching or Book of Changes, The Richard Wilhelm Translation rendered into English by Cary F. Baynes, Foreword by C. G. Jung
The Portable Dragon, the Western Man’s Guide to the I Ching, by R. G. H. Siu
Horse,Tang Dynasty, Smithsonian Exhibit